In what amounted to a pep talk aimed at disenchanted Hispanic voters, President Obama on Monday defended his unsuccessful efforts to overhaul the nation's immigration system, saying Democrats are on their side and blaming Republicans in Congress.
But even as Mr. Obama vowed to tackle the "unfinished business" of establishing a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, that wasn't enough for some Hispanic activists, who planned to protest Tuesday outside the White House to draw attention to the more than one million people who have been deported under his administration.
"Feel free to keep the heat on me and keep the heat on Democrats," Mr. Obama said in an address to the National Council of La Raza's annual conference in Washington. "But here's the only thing you should know: The Democrats and your president are with you. Don't get confused about that. Remember who it is that we need to move in order to actually change the laws."
The speech is Mr. Obama's latest effort to court the crucial voting bloc ahead of next year's presidential election. Last month he paid a brief visit to Puerto Rico — the first trip to the island by a sitting U.S. president in decades — and hosted the first-ever White House Hispanic Policy Conference.
Indeed, the Hispanic vote is shaping up to be even more important in 2012 than it was in 2008, when Mr. Obama won the demographic by 67 percent compared with Republican rival Sen. John McCain's 31 percent, according to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of exit polls. Census figures show the nation's Hispanic population has skyrocketed over the last decade, particularly in key presidential swing states like Nevada, Virginia and Florida.
Mr. Obama reminded the crowd that he appointed the first Hispanic woman to serve as Cabinet secretary, Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, as well as the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor.
But he has failed to deliver on the Hispanic community's top priority of immigration reform — something he blamed on the intransigence of Republicans on Capitol Hill.
He delivered an immigration speech last summer and announced his support for several legislative efforts, but didn't put major muscle behind any of them until last year's lame-duck Congress, when he pushed for passage of the Dream Act, a bill that would have that would have laid out a path to citizenship for children whose parents brought them to the country illegally.
That bill passed the House, but was defeated by a bipartisan filibuster in the Senate.
"I need a dance partner here. And the floor is empty," Mr. Obama said, citing Republican senators who have voted for reform bills in the past but have now "walked away."
Still, the president has drawn some criticism from immigration activists for refusing to halt deportations in the absence of legislation. But Mr. Obama has said he doesn't have the authority to impose a moratorium on deportations, which have increased dramatically under his administration.
"These are the laws on the books," he said. "I swore an oath to uphold the laws on the books, but that doesn't mean I don't know very well the real pain and heartbreak that deportations cause. I share your concerns and I understand them."
When the president told the crowd he wished he could bypass Congress on immigration but he can't, a chant erupted of "Yes you can!" — a play on his 2008 campaign motto of "Yes we can."
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